Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS

Reader's Digest World Presents The Living Edens Bhutan, The last Shangri-la
People Culture and History

The People and Culture of BhutanBhutan: A Rich HistoryForerign Perceptions of Bhutan

Bhutan: A Rich History
For many centuries, the outside world had no name for Bhutan. Its lofty frontiers wrapped it in an impenetrable cloak of mystery. The Tibetan chroniclers of the 18th century referred to it by many names, including "Hidden Holy Land," The Southern Valley of Medicinal Herbs," and "the Lotus Garden of the Gods." However, the Bhutanese have had a name for their own country for centuries. They still refer to their land as Druk Yul, literally meaning "The Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon."

StatueBhutan's historical period begins at about 747 A.D., when the revered religious leader Guru Padma Sambhava came from Tibet and introduced Buddhism to the country. Known also as Guru Rimpoche, this remarkable man -- almost as highly esteemed as Buddha himself in Bhutan -- is credited with various events. It is said that he flew to Bhutan on the back of a tiger, and that at Taktsang he conquered the demon spirits that were standing in the way of the spread of Buddhism. It is more certain that he visited Bumthang in central Bhutan, where he cured the ailing King, and various places in the Paro valley, and that he and his later followers meditated in a cave on the cliff where the Taktsang monastery now stands. In Bumthang, the kurje temple was built at the spot where, after Padma Sambhava had meditated, his fingerprints and footmarks appeared etched into solid rock, and where a cypress tree (which still stands) sprouted from his staff.

The pattern of Buddhism has changed considerably over the centuries, influenced particularly by emigrants from Tibet. Later, Bhutanese sects developed their own forms of the religion. Dominant amongst these has been the Drukpa sect of Kagyupa, a branch of Mahayana ("Greater Vehicle") and now the official religion of Bhutan. Apparently, Kagyupa was a somewhat ascetic and rigorous practice of Buddhism that demanded long periods of isolation; its stringency led to the formation of more lenient sub sects. (Drukpa ("Thunder Dragon") was so named because when it was being formed thunder echoed across the sky.)

Bhutan Scene

During the whole of the period from the first introduction of Buddhism into Bhutan, and possibly well before, it seems likely that Bhutan existed as an independent entity, within similar natural boundaries to those that exist now. However, there was no central authority, and a number of separate towns or principalities existed, often practicing different religions or different forms of the same religion, and with mutually unintelligible dialects. By 1600, Gelugpa power in Tibet had extended as far as the Ralung monastery near Lhasa, the religious center of the Drukpa sect. The Drukpa Lamas were forced to submit or flee, and many of them found their way to Bhutan. Amongst these refugee lamas was Ngawang Namgyal, who was to have a remarkable effect on his adopted land. He arrived in Bhutan in 1616, a time when there was no central authority, no laws and no dominant religion. Yet by the time he died in 1651, the whole of western Bhutan was under one government, and five years later, the whole country had one government and one religion -- Drukpa Buddhism.

When Namgyal first arrived, he realized he would need the support of many rich families in western Bhutan who already supported the Drukpas. As soon as he was assured of this support, he set about building a chain of dzongs in all the main valleys of Western Bhutan, starting with the Simtokha Dzong in the Thimpu valley. These rapidly became the focal points for civil and religious authority for each region, and remain one of the great features of the landscape and life of Bhutan today. In 1639, this unification was tested by a Tibetan invasion, which Namgyal won in a great victory. After this victory, he assumed the title of Shabdrung and effectively became the temporal and spiritual leader of Bhutan.

In 1644, the Mongol leader Gushi Khan invaded Bhutan with a vast army. He was repulsed, invaded again in 1647, and was again defeated. Unsurprisingly, these successes served to strengthen the Shabdrung's position and unite the country further. It was Namgyal who set about establishing a system of government and laws for the country. A Jey Kempo (head abbot) was appointed to manage the religious institutions, while civil power was invested in a Druk Desi, or Deb -- a sort of Prime Minister. The country was divided into regions, which were administered by governors known as Penlops, with Dzongpons appointed below them to administer civil affairs locally.

Temple SceneAlthough he died in 1651, it is believed that the death of the Shabdung was kept quiet for 50 years so that a legitimate successor might be found. This system presented few problems in the first few years, but gradually, power devolved into the office of the Druk Desi, and local civil wars ensued. The two seeds of the problem were that the system of choosing successive Shabdrungs was reincarnation, and that as the successor was chosen at birth, for the first 18 years of his birth he was a minor, and power again devolved onto the Druk Desi. Successive Druk Desis proved reluctant to part with their acquired power, and the power of the Shabdrung gradually waned. Namgyal's efforts at establishing central authority were gradually wasted as the Druk Desi lost control to the regional governors and the Penlops. The country degenerated into a series of semi-independent regions, each controlled by a Penlop. But the overall identity of Bhutan remained, and with it, the possibility of reunification.

By the mid-18th century, Moghul power was declining in Northern India, and Bhutanese influence in the adjacent region of Cooch Behar increasing. By 1772, the Bhutanese held almost total control over the region. At this stage, they first came into contact with the British in India. The East India Company were anxious to secure the northern frontiers of their domain at the time, and looked upon Bhutanese activities with disfavour. In 1773, a small British force was dispatched to the area with the connivance and financial backing of the pretender to the Cooch Behari throne, Khagenda Naryan. This force defeated the Bhutanese and captured two forts in the foothills. This alarmed the Bhutanese, who called on the Panchen Lama to intercede with Warren Hastings, the governor general of India at the time. This led to the signing of a treaty between the Bhutanese and the British, and a period of increased contact.

Meanwhile, the Bhutanese desire for expansion turned elsewhere, particularly to the east. In Assam, still independent of the British, the Ahom dynasty was in disarray, and Bhutan found no difficulty in increasing its influence there. By 1826, the Bhutanese had gained control over all of the duars (passes) into Assam. In 1828, however, the British occupied Assam and once again came into contact with the Bhutanese. For several years, there were minor clashes as the British gradually regained control of the Duars, and eventually, this turned into the second Anglo-Bhutanese war. By 1865, the British were in total control of all the passes in Bengal and Assam, and were in a position to push the Bhutanese back on all fronts. The war ended in 1865 with the Treaty of Sinchaula, which signalled the end of hostilities and provided for conditions of mutual peace and friendship. Trade became open and duty free, Bhutan ceded all claims to the 18 Duars, and received an annual payment of 50,000 rupees from the British government. This agreement has continued with independent India since the signing of a treaty in 1949.

Funeral SceneIn the latter half of the 19th century, chaos fairly reigned in Bhutan, and the power factions had become centerd predominantly upon the Penlops of Paro and Tongsa, who had become the most powerful men in Bhutan. These two factions battled for power, with considerable disagreement between them on whether to maintain their traditional ties with Tibet or to side with the new force, Britain. The British inadvertently helped to end the conflict and establish the hereditary monarchy that rules Bhutan today.

In 1903, the Younghusband expedition passed through Bhutan on the way to Tibet. The Paro Penlop remained aloof whilst the Tongsa Penlop, Ugyen Wangchuck, welcomed them and offered them every assistance. He accompanied the expedition and helped negotiate a favourable Anglo-Tibetan agreement. Shortly after his return, having not only assisted the British but also secured enormous respect from the Tibetan's for himself, Ugyen Wangchuck was awarded the K.C.I.E. by the British (1905). The effect of his mediation in Tibet counted for an enormous amount. For the first time since 1750, when a peace mission had been sent from Bhutan to Tibet to intervene in a civil war, the chance was presented of settling an external rather than internal conflict. Both in Bhutan and Tibet, the traditional figure of the mediator is one of enormous prestige, standing above the contending parties and winning great honour from both sides. However, he declined the official headgear offered to him by the Tibetans, saying he would stick to his own crown. In Bhutan, he was welcomed home like a conquering hero. After this, he assumed respect from the British, met the British Royal party out from Britain in Calcutta (one of only two times he ever left Bhutan), and was treated like an Indian prince, complete with a 15 gun salute.

At the meeting with the Prince of Wales and the Viceroy, he brought the traditional gold coins as a gift, which symbolize allegiance, as well as a letter declaring:

"As the stars and constellations never fail in loyalty attending on the sun and moon, so do we the entire Bhutanese nation resolve to do likewise to the Supreme Government, hoping that as the sun and the moon are like parents of the whole world, we also will enjoy the blessings of their beneficent rays for ever and ever till the cessation of worldly existence."

Clearly, Bhutan was now operating firmly within the British sphere of influence. At this point, Bhutan took decisive steps to establish its monarchy. In 1906, Ugyen Dorje a longtime adviser to Ugyen Wangchuck, addressed a letter to the council of state. He pointed out that in the absence of a clear procedure for appointing the regent, it was difficult to protect the realms of either religion or state. Clearly, this letter was written to test the waters and to see how far the matter could progress. While the Shabdrung's spiritual place and role were left central to the conception of the monarchy, providing ultimate legitimacy to the king's line and the whole state, the practically defunct regency was allowed to die a quiet death.

Although there is no record of the deliberations, the decision to establish the monarchy appears to have been genuinely popular not only amongst those responsible for taking it, but also with the public at large. It was also the occasion on which the long standing friendship between Ugyen Dorji and Ugyen Wangchuck was formalised by the appointment of Dorji as chamberlain (a title which Wangchuck wished to be hereditary). Thus on December 17, 1907, Ugyen Wangchuck was enthroned. In 1911, Dorji received the title Rajah from the Viceroy as a personal distinction, and continued in his fiefdom of the Ha valley (despite continuing to be based at his family home in Kalimpong, outside Bhutanese territory). He died in 1916, and was replaced by his son Sonam Topgye as the King wished.

The old Paro Penlop continued to make difficulties, and remained powerful enough to make considerable difficulties for Ugyen Dorji. This continued through his death in 1918 and replacement by the King's grandson, Tsering Penjor. Ugyen Wangchuck died in 1926 at the age of 64, and was replaced by his 22 year-old son the following year.

Up to the present, there have been four kings of Bhutan, and the present ruler Jigme Singye Wangchuck is clearly as popular as the previous three. Because of the way in which the monarchy assumed certain aspects of the pre-existent theocracy, many customs and symbols serve to underline the sacred nature of kingship and its remote position high above the world of ordinary mortals. However, alongside this there exists a complimentary tradition requiring the King to be wholly accessible to his people. Any subject, however low, has the right to present a grievance. In cases of serious loss or affliction, welfare can always be requested. The rural setting of the Bhutanese monarchy, in contrast to the urban locale of most others, promotes this contact between the king and his people. In comparison to other monarchies, there is an absence of hidebound ritual. The present monarch, very much like his father before him, chooses to live very simply with a minimum of ceremony, and is far more concerned with the welfare of his subjects than court ritual.


Home

Filming Shangri-La | Land of the Thunder Dragon | Animal Archive | People, Culture, History
Bhutan Resources | Teaching Bhutan | Bhutan Screen Saver | Bhutan Credits